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Secrets of the 4-Hour Workweek

Tim Ferriss on Innovative and Mobile Ways to Travel, Study, Live, and Work Abroad

Tim Ferriss in Brazil
Tim Ferriss in Brazil

Prior to writing The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, Princeton University guest lecturer Timothy Ferriss spent two years traveling the world and exploring a diverse spectrum of languages, ranging from Irish Gaelic and Norwegian to Belizean Creole and Argentine Lunfardo. At age 29, Tim speaks Japanese, Chinese, German, Spanish, Italian, and Korean. How did someone, especially so young, find time to learn languages and travel the world when, according to The Families and Work Institute, “Only 14 percent of Americans take two weeks or more at a time for vacation”?

Although Tim attended Princeton University, where he majored in East Asian Studies and Neuroscience, he is not a trust-fund kid. His parents never made more than $50,000 per year combined, and Tim has worked since age 14. But even without a safety net, he knew from his parents that it was important to design your time and life in a stimulating way regardless of income. His parents always had a budget for books and they tried to expose Tim and his brother to as many different environments and stimuli as possible. They emphasized the importance of doing interesting things as opposed to having interesting things, which taught Tim a lifelong lesson that enriching, alternative realities are within anyone’s grasp—and this is among the messages and lessons he passes on in The 4-Hour Workweek.

The title of Tim’s book may seem as implausible as his bio (Tim founded a multinational sports nutrition company, which he runs from wireless locations worldwide; he is a national champion Chinese kickboxer; he is the first American in history to hold a Guinness World Record in tango; and he was an MTV breakdancer in Taiwan). You would be hard-pressed to find someone more interested in self-development than Tim—but this is precisely what makes his book so compelling. After imprisoning himself in a start-up company in Silicon Valley that required 12-hour working days, seven days a week, he stopped cold turkey and took 15 months to travel the world, and found to his amazement that his company did not fail—in fact, profits increased 40 percent once he removed himself as the bottleneck and redesigned his business for lifestyle purposes.

The lessons Tim learned about creating a life he loves, and those innovators he met in more than 20 countries doing the same, served as inspiration for writing his book. The 4-Hour Workweek aims to help others free themselves from time poverty and information overload by doing what works instead of what’s popular and employing time management skills and technology more effectively. Tim’s no-holds-barred writing style is reflective of his life—and it may be the very reason that this is one of those rare books that causes, at the least, a dramatic mental shift, if not a personal change.

How workaholic Americans can reverse the cascading live-to-work trend and free themselves from the daily grind is at the core of the book. The answers are tailor-made for “entrepreneurs,” but Tim explains that “entrepreneurship” is a mindset all people should embrace, not a job description. From cubicle dwellers to CEOs, anyone wishing to escape the office or who agrees that “gold is getting old” will appreciate Tim’s tips for how to create a more meaningful lifestyle by capitalizing on the new currencies of time and mobility.

Like any effective self-help book, this one walks readers through the steps needed to reach their goal, which in this case culminates in Liberation from “work” (defined in the book as an “income-driven activity that one prefers to spend less time on”). Mastering these steps, according to Tim, will help you “produce an ultra-refined set of rules that will cut remaining fat and redundancy from your schedule” in order to create the time you need to pursue more of what you want out of life—from traveling, to speaking new languages, to learning new avocations.

Instead of a “deferred-life” plan that puts off living for retirement, Tim urges readers to embrace the idea of “lifestyle design” to build more time freedom and flexibility into their lives and to realize more good “life hubs,” which he defines as starting points that lead to opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be found, including not just purposeful travel experiences but also true callings or dream occupations.

“Retirement planning is like life insurance. It should be viewed as nothing more than a hedge against the absolute worst-case scenario: becoming physically incapable of working and needing a reservoir of capital to survive,” he says. “‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you…If it’s important to you and you want to do it ‘eventually,’ just do it and correct course along the way.”

 To learn more about The 4-Hour Workweek go to www.4hourworkweek.com. You can order a copy from fine bookstores everywhere, and online booksellers such as amazon.com and bn.com.

Sherry Schwarz: What is the “mini-retirement,” which you propose as an alternative to 2-week vacations (or what you refer to as “too-weak” travel in your book)?

Tim Ferriss: The mini-retirement is the alternative to binge travel, where you visit as many locations as possible in a series of check-ins and check-outs, which is the cramming tendency when vacations are short and infrequent. Instead, I advocate relocating to one place for one to six months before going home or moving to another locale. Though it can be relaxing, the mini-retirement is not an escape from your life but rather a re-examination of it. This is also different from a sabbatical, which is viewed as a one-time event. A mini-retirement is defined as recurring. It’s a 1- to 3-month system reset for enjoyment and to put things into perspective. It’s extremely useful for testing anything you want to do for retirement, if you’re still on that track.

The challenge with the “two weak” vacation, even if you optimize it, is that there is an inevitable exit process from work mode to off mode. You need to make that purging process—that mental shift—as short as possible to enjoy the time you have and ensure your mind is on vacation along with your body. Here are a few approaches that can help:

 Stay in one place for the entire time as opposed to binge traveling.

 I like mini-retirements because once you decide it will be a mini-retirement, and that this will be a recurring feature of your lifestyle, you will feel less rushed.

 I never go somewhere to see a spot (the best view I’ll get of the blue hole in Belize is through National Geographic); I travel with a specific learning goal in mind. This forces you to interact with people and with your environment, and usually there is a language component, because we’re not only talking about a system of behavior but also a system of thinking. Learning the language of the people around you is the only true way to understand their culture—the shared thinking and behavior that defines them.

 If we embrace doing as opposed to seeing, the vacation becomes an experiential event as opposed to a recording event. Once you make this shift, everything slows down and you focus on enjoyment in the present versus remembering stories for your friends.

SS: What advice do you have for those of us who don’t have jobs or lifestyles conducive to taking off a month or more at a time?

TF: Just realizing that you don’t have to let other people set the rules for you. If you decide you’re going to take two months or a year off, be aware that there are plenty of people who do this and design their lives around this policy. For example, if you leave a highly stressful job, take advantage of the time between jobs to unplug, take a mini-retirement, and reassess your priorities and direction. I have a friend who never quits but artfully gets fired every 12 months or so, takes severance, and then goes on a 3- to 6-month round-the-world trip. When talking to employers, tell them how you work best. Tell them you need two months to do all that’s important outside the office. Explain that you need this type of format to work effectively.

SS: Let’s talk about why extended travel is not just for the ultra-rich. In your book, you point out the irony that “people want to be rich precisely to travel, when they can already create the means.”

TF: Most of the things you want to do with your time you can do with very minor tweaks to how you generate income, especially in a digital world. Many of the things you wish to do you have the means to do today. Let’s consider a question I often ask my friends in high-hour, high-stress, high-reward jobs: If you had $10 million in the bank and retired today, how would you spend your time? Luxury has less to do with money than people realize. Income is just one of the three currencies; in order of importance, they are time, income, and mobility. Real luxury is having many options and no fear of most discomfort. Once you realize this and start defining a lifestyle that leverages time and mobility, you can multiply the lifestyle output of your money.

SS: You define the New Rich as those who “rearrange their schedules and negotiate a remote work agreement to achieve 90 percent of the results in one-tenth of the time” to free themselves to do the things they love. What do you recommend for those who would say they need to be on site for their jobs, such as a doctor or teacher?

TF: First I’d suggest they decide exactly what they want to spend their time doing and how much time they need to do it. Then, in the case of a teacher (or journalist, or office worker), you might begin with a simple principle I cover in the book such as “batching” tasks. Maybe you do lesson planning every evening for two hours. There is an inevitable set-up cost for beginning a new task, and task switching can consume up to 24 percent of your waking hours. This means that we should “batch” similar tasks (paperwork, laundry, email, or lesson planning, for example) at set times, between which we let them accumulate. If you spend two hours nightly on lesson plans, doing them all in one evening should cut the cumulative time in half (five hours in instead of 10 hours) and you can then spend that time practicing a language or with your children. Batching posts and scheduling them in advance is a favorite time saver of the world’s most prolific bloggers. I use autoresponders to check email just once per day (visit the 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog for samples you can use).

Or, you might even be inspired by my chapter on outsourcing to outsource your personal errands—anything that costs less than you make per hour. If you really want to push the envelope, you might ask what if I were able to take every other Monday off and bring in a guest speaker? Suddenly instead of a weekend, you would have 72 hours. Or, what if it were possible to teach one class remotely each month? Many of the things I propose and explore often seem outrageous, but you have to remember that everything we currently take as normal in our jobs was once considered impossible or outrageous. Thirty years ago someone took an educational field trip to a museum for the first time, and now this is commonplace for students across the country. The question is how soon do you want to explore your options?

It’s just a matter of time before employers have to embrace performance over presence, but in the meantime, question the status quo and don’t underestimate your leverage. Is it possible to be a trendsetter and innovator, to ask for forgiveness instead of permission, and to implement your ideal lifestyle now instead of postponing it for retirement?

SS: People generally think of creating a work-life balance. But you say it would be more effective to completely separate work and life. Please comment.

TF: I dislike the word “balance” in this context, because most people—my previous self included—mistake it for blending. This is how we end up checking our Blackberries at dinner, abandoning weekend plans for paperwork, or making our families wait while we finish up email that never seems to end. “I’ll just complete it this weekend” or “I’ll just take care of it tonight” are all-too-common decisions in a digital world that keep half of your mental RAM in the office 24/7. The most fulfilled New Rich I’ve met set strict boundaries on when work begins and ends, and where work can enter and where it cannot. For example, no computers are allowed in my bedroom, all business-related books are contained in my separate office on the second floor, I don’t have a PDA with Internet access, and I don’t have any desktop computers that cannot be closed and whose monitor screens beckon you to the inbox.

SS: Was there a specific experience that inspired you to begin traveling and helped you recognize the importance of adaptability?

TF: Yes, when I was a sophomore in high school, I experienced my first trip outside the U.S., which was a year living in Japan as an exchange student. I went with the expectation of receiving Japanese classes, but I soon learned I would be taking actual classes at a Japanese school alongside 5,000 Japanese students. I’d only had six months of Japanese in the U.S. prior to landing and couldn’t even read. Even though I had failed to learn any Spanish in two years of study in junior high, in Japan I went from being illiterate to writing an article for my Japanese high school’s newspaper in 11 months. Thereafter, my progression period for learning languages got shorter and shorter. The reason for this is simple: though I lacked the proper methods (the “how”), I became very good at choosing material (the “what”). The 4-Hour Workweek applies this concept—that effectiveness gets 10-fold results over efficiency—to overturn nearly all of the “rules” we let imprison us.

SS: Since this is Transitions Abroad’s language-learning issue, and you’ve written about your methods for effective language acquisition in the 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog, please give us some pointers.

TF: The two most important elements to language acquisition are choosing the right environment and the right material, or the highest frequency material. This goes back to the 80/20 principle I discuss in my book, whereby you examine what 20 percent of sources are resulting in 80 percent of your desired outcomes. I don’t have an inherent gift for language-learning, but I did learn how to pick the most useful material and separate the few important from the trivial many. I realized that with an essentially infinite number of words in a language, you can never speak perfectly, so I set out to identify the 2,000 most commonly used words, which is more than enough for conversational fluency and creating the perception of speaking perfectly. If you learn just 20 a day with flashcards, that will take you 100 days, but if you are in the native environment, it’s just two to three months of using commute time on the trains or time otherwise wasted waiting in lines. I highly recommend Casio electronic dictionaries for use in conversation and Vis-Ed flashcards (www.vis-ed.com) for acquiring the highest-frequency 1,500-2,000 words in most popular languages.

SS: You say the 9-5 clock is obsolete, but how can an employee really escape the office?

TF: There are a number of ways that you can frame what you want to do as a business benefit to your employer. For example, in any other country, there likely exists the industry or profession in which you work. So, if you are a teacher, you might make contact with an educational expert in Japan and get invited to visit him or her (even if just for an afternoon). Then indicate that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and propose a month-long research trip to see how the Japanese manage their class curriculum and text preparation. If you are in the publishing field and you know the Frankfurt book show is coming up, you might frame a trip in terms of value to the company and then time your trip, if possible, so that it buttresses a weekend or another vacation. Suggest you’ll also meet with particular individuals to talk about how they would handle an upcoming project in your company. Really understand what you can bring back (a new skill set, exposure, experience other people have). The bottom line is that your employer has to perceive the business value and benefit to them of what you propose; it can’t simply be a personal perk.

There are certain things you’ll want to do that won’t make you a better employee in terms of skill set, such as scuba diving. In such cases, you first demonstrate your value, and then increase your company’s investment in you (with training, etc.), making it more expensive and time-consuming to replace you. Point out that you are extremely overworked and that it has been a while since you’ve decompressed. It is critical that you make it more painful for your employer to risk losing you than to agree to whatever you’re proposing. In the book, there are sample scripts that employees can use to take each step in this process. Just remember: outside of law and science, everything is negotiable. Become good at creative deal making. Think entrepreneurially, and treat your propositions like business proposals. Get a book on business proposals and see how people go out to raise money. Have facts that can’t be argued with and make it in someone’s better interest to accept, rather than reject, your offers.

SS: In your book’s chapter “Fear-Setting and Escaping Paralysis” you write: “Uncertainty and the prospect of failure can be very scary noises in the shadows. Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.” What would you say to people who want to travel, live, work, or volunteer abroad for extended periods but are afraid to make the leap?

TF: People don’t achieve the lives they want for the same reason they let fear stop them—ambiguity. If we don’t define our ideal lifestyle—what we’d do, be, and have if we had $100 million in the bank—we can’t achieve it. Likewise, if we don’t define our fears in detail, we can’t overcome them and take action. There are some very common excuses that people use to keep themselves within their own comfort zones: I have a house, I have kids, I won’t have health insurance, I’m a woman who can’t travel alone because it’s too dangerous, etc. For every person who claims their situation makes it impossible, I can point to dozens of paraplegics, single mothers with children, home owners and business owners, even the deaf and blind, who have embraced the few critical reasons to travel instead of letting the million popular but easily overcome reasons stop them. Let’s take a closer look:

 Is this really your fear or something you’re borrowing from other people or that is commonly heard?

 If you don’t do it, how will you feel next year, five years from now, or 10 years from now?

 If you had to travel, because your mother was in France and had a heart attack how would you do it? If you were to do it, what is the worst thing that could happen? How would you reverse or repair the damage if you had to? Precisely define what your nightmare scenarios are, and you’ll realize that most are not that serious, and nearly all are preventable or reversible.

Losing children is the most acute fear for parents, so I address it in-depth in the book with case studies. In a nutshell, though, don’t assume that wherever you’re going is more dangerous than the United States or wherever you call home. Robin Malinsky-Rummell, one case study in the book, took her two children to Argentina following the 2001 devaluation riots because her research convinced her it was safe. Her friends all told her it was suicide. When she arrived in Argentina and told the locals she was from New York, they responded “I would never go there—it’s too dangerous!” They had seen video of the 9/11 attacks on television.

If you’re comfortable alone or with children in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or London…guess what? The rest of the world is usually a good deal safer than all of those cities. Once you take the first step to conquer an unknown fear, deconstructing fear becomes a habit, which continually expands your sphere of comfortable action. That gives you the only real power: options.

SS: Transitions Abroad’s readers travel to learn, which is a concept you advocate in your book. What is it about international travel and language training that contributes to self-development?

TF: My learning has always been proportional to my discomfort. In order to adapt, which is synonymous with personal growth, you need to apply a stimulus, and that stimulus needs to cause discomfort or there’s no reason to adapt. International travel is a great vehicle for this because you enter an environment in which what is considered normal may be abnormal by your culture’s standards, and this shows how arbitrary and culturally reinforced what we accept as permanent is. This can range from something simple like removing shoes before entering a house, to taking a shower before taking a bath in Japan, to driving on the left side of the road instead of the right. Societies function because we follow a set of rules, but at some point many of these rules become obsolete. When you go abroad, what cannot or can be done in that culture will conflict with the baggage you have from your home country. We observe people operating under a different set of rules and this causes us to question our own assumptions. So it shows you that what you think can’t be done, can be done. My range of experience—and alternate realities—abroad has shown me how trapped most of us are (and how trapped I was) by rules we adopt without ever realizing the complete freedom we have to change.

SS: Your book offers some terrific case studies. One that struck me was of Julie and Marc, who sailed around the world for 15 months with their three boys. Their voyage, which included purchasing a sailboat on which they later recouped their investment, cost them about $19,000—“less than rent and baguettes in Paris,” you comment. Are there other examples of how “the common-sense rules of the ‘real world’ are a fragile collection of socially reinforced illusions”?

TF: After one of my entrepreneurship lectures at Princeton last year, I was approached by a graduate student—a career academic who was very smart and hardworking. He was pretty distraught, because he was dying to go to Japan and had turned down the opportunity twice already because everyone told him that going to Japan was frivolous compared to taking a grant one year and a career opportunity the next. He was now faced with the same dilemma of travel vs. what he should do. He was very emotional because he felt this was his last chance to go to Japan before starting his career, but he also had the prospect for an internship.

I asked him, “Did you regret not going to Japan the last two summers?” He did. I observed that if he took the internship, the outcome might be a better job, but the work world would always be waiting for him. I told him, “Look, you’re already ahead. If you go to Japan, you wouldn’t be taking time off; you’d be choosing to use time in a different way. The world won’t stop, and people who interview you for jobs later will spend the entire time asking you how you did it!” Naturally, I recommended he take the trip to Japan. He wrote to me later and said it was the best thing he had ever done. This one trip reframed his entire reality. He’s no longer on a narrow career track with blinders on. He sees other options. It is possible to have both fun and profit.

SS: What advice would you give people who want to slow down?

TF: If you create a mobile lifestyle, whether through a remote work arrangement or entrepreneurship, escaping the “too-weak vacation” world is as simple as using a few common technologies and believing it can be done. The alternative to binge travel that I recommend—the mini-retirement—forces the growth-inducing introspection most of us have never had time for.

Above all, remember three things. First, life can end at any time, so don’t postpone it. Second, if it doesn’t end, the average person works 500 months in their lifetime, so there’s no rush to get to the office. Third, people have short memories and are too busy thinking about themselves to worry about you.

Take the journey and leave the office behind.

 
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